On Being Social … and Well

This post started with a conversation about an RSS alert from The Economist.

My wife, Sue, receives a range of RSS feeds each day on her iPad. Earlier this week a story about social isolation and illness led to a fascinating breakfast time and on-going conversation.

It prompted me to follow up on the paper that informed The Economist article.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith and Bradley Layton’s paper Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review appeared in PLoS Medicine, July 2010. Its publication in PLoS Medicine made the paper even more interesting for me given the open access nature of the journal.

The objectives of the paper, a meta-analytic review, were ” to determine the extent to which social relationships influence risk for mortality, which aspects of social relationships are most highly predictive, and which factors may moderate the risk.” Julianne, Timothy and Bradley reviewed 148 studies (from January 1900 to January 2007) involving a total of 308,849 participants and suggest that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.”

Their summary of their findings is:

These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement. Although further research is needed to determine exactly how social relationships can be used to reduce mortality risk, physicians, health professionals, educators, and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality, the researchers conclude.

These are the metrics for the paper at the time I accessed it:

I wonder if this reader profile is a good example of a social effect too.

Greg Miller has noted subsequently that:

In a steady stream of recent papers, social psychologists have identified several potentially unhealthy changes in the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems of chronically lonely people. The findings could help explain why epidemiological studies have often found that socially isolated people have shorter life spans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression. The work also adds a new wrinkle, suggesting that it’s the subjective experience of loneliness that’s harmful, not the actual number of social contacts a person has. An impressive network of collaborations with researchers in other disciplines is now pioneering a new science of loneliness.

Stephen Cole has added to the discussion with his paper at AAAS in February 2011. He and a number of colleagues have published a paper in Genome Biology too. They conclude in that paper:

These data provide the first indication that human genome-wide transcriptional activity is altered in association with a social epidemiological risk factor. Impaired transcription of glucocorticoid response genes and increased activity of pro-inflammatory transcription control pathways provide a functional genomic explanation for elevated risk of inflammatory disease in individuals who experience chronically high levels of subjective social isolation.

Many years ago as a young student I read about anomie and alienation.  A breakfast conversation and a search for links has brought back memories of these early readings of Durkheim and Marx. They were crystallised for me by a conversation in our family car about Albert Camus’ The Outsider on a road trip in Tasmania this week.

I realise how fortunate I am to have the opportunity for breakfast conversations and family car journeys.

Photo Credit


Narrative Engines and Personal Identity

I receive a daily RSS feed from the Scholarly Kitchen. Today I read Kent Anderson’s post The “Me at the Centre” Expectation.

Kent concludes his discussion about the personalisation of web experiences with the observation that:

the Web is both mobile and omnipresent in some ways, but the way it’s being deployed is about each user. It’s the antithesis of broadcast, yet it requires broadcast. And the “filter failure” we’re worrying about requires traditional filters, but then gets filtered further.

His post was prompted by Nick Bilton‘s book I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. Kent links to this post by Nick Bilton in which Nick points out that  “Now you are the starting point. Now the digital world follows you, not the other way around.”

A few days earlier on one of my drives to Canberra I had been listening to Ramona Koval‘s discussions with William Boyd about his new book Ordinary Thunderstorms and the use of a narrative engine to discuss personal identity.(Transcript of the interview.) William points out that the idea for the book is the the hunter and the hunted. He adds that:

it’s a very powerful narrative engine for any novel, and I happily cherry-pick genres for narrative engines as I require them. In this case I was mainly interested in what happens when you lose everything. It’s not so much about Adam escaping, he has to escape, it’s about the process that this involves, that he sheds everything that makes him a modern citizen; mobile phone, credit cards, passport, home, job, reputation et cetera. He runs, but instead of running away north, south, east or west, he goes down, he hides himself in the lowest reaches of society, and in so doing has to lose his identity. And that’s what really intrigued me about this story.

During the course of the interview, William notes that:

It’s extraordinary to me that the population of the missing in England is some 200,000 people. We just don’t know where they are, we can’t find them …  So 600 people a week just walk away from their homes, their families, their jobs, and disappear, 200,000 people, that’s a big provincial city. Where is this population? They’re like ghosts wandering the streets, you occasionally see them as you walk about London huddled in doorways or passed out on park benches, but there is a great population of the missing in this city and it just shows you that you can, even in the 21st century, disappear off the radar completely.

Without forcing the link too much I do think there is an interesting juxtaposition between Nick Bilton’s and William Boyd’s books. In pursuing this idea I came across David Ventura and David Brogan’s (2002) paper on Digital Storytelling. They explore a heuristic for interactive narrative development that aims to deliver a compelling story. Their narrative engine enables users to choose branching of stories whilst constraining these choices to make the story feasible.

Whilst William Boyd uses the craft of authorship, David Ventura and David Brogan explore an optimised constraints-based system. I take Nick Bilson’s point to be that the user-centredness of narrative is embedded on our everyday lives and will be so increasingly. It is an opportunity to move on our digital practice as Luis Suarez and Kevin Jones have argued recently “adoption has to do with context not age”.

Adoption and non-adoption, personalised and personal learning, social connectedness and social isolation are important issues for me in my work. I think volition and intrinsic motivation are keys to engagement and hope that advocacy and support can encourage participation in a digital world. I recognise that there are lots of people, as William Boyd points out through the character of Adam, that do not wish to engage.

For my part I am fascinated by the ubiquitous opportunities many of us have. My next step … I am off to re-read Bryan Rieger’s Rethinking the Mobile Web (another RSS feast from the Scholarly Kitchen).

Photo Credits

Istanbul Market

Phone Walk